Shadow play

Claud-Joseph Vernet, Genoa Lighthouse and the Temple of Minerva Medica (Bristol Museum): https://wp.me/p2oNj1-4bm

Tempest-Tost
by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books 2011 (1951)

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.
All’s Well that Ends Well

The first volume in Robertson Davies’ Salterton Trilogy is a provincial Canadian comedy of manners with a universal appeal, in which despite errors being compounded all’s well that ends well, which is as we like it.

From this corny introduction you’ll have gathered Tempest-Tost is a novel with a Shakespearean theme, and so it is. In the middle of the 20th century The Little Theatre company, an amateur group, is attempting to put on an open air pastoral of The Tempest, unaware that they are as much the dramatis personae in a real-life play as the characters they are hoping to portray. Except, as I hope to argue, the fictional parts they play in the comedy are not those they live during the course of the novel.

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“Blossoms passing fair”

An illustrated introduction to Shakespeare’s flowers
by Dr Levi Fox,
Jarrold Colour Publications 1977

A slim 32-page booklet with colour photos on all but a handful of pages, this introduction is designed to emphasise that Shakespeare’s acquaintance of flowers “was not that of a botanist or horticulturalist but rather of a countryman gifted with an acute sense of observation”. He knew the colour of his plants, the seasons they appeared in, the folklore associated with them. In addition the poet ascribed uses to them (some made up, some genuine) and delighted in descriptions of them, in adjectives, simile or metaphor.

Here you’ll find quotes from Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and the history plays, The Winter’s Tale and the poems; the late Dr Fox also includes an endpiece with mentions of Shakespeare’s herbs, from balm to savory, marjoram to wormwood and much in between. As with the flowers botanical names are included, relevant quotes, and interpretations or clarifications of a few more obscure names the poet uses.

Above all the author includes passages from Will’s works with brief commentary giving context, all supplemented by the opening essay. As an historian, archivist and then director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Fox was in a good position to give an authoritative summary of the Swan of Avon’s familiarity with blooms.

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Something rotten

Jan Mark: Heathrow Nights
Heinemann New Windmills 2002 (2000)

Three teenage tearaways from Hertfordshire, Adam, Curtis and the narrator Russell, disgrace themselves on an outing to see a performance of Hamlet and as a result are banned from a school trip to Cumbria. Rather than confess to their parents — and having intercepted letters from school — they arrange to spend the week in London. Alas, things don’t go according to plan and they find themselves in limbo wandering around the terminals of Heathrow Airport.

While they do so Russell is able to meditate more fully on his situation: his father having suddenly died, his mother hasn’t taken long to get remarried, to the person who was with his father when the latter unexpectedly passed away on a plane.

His resentment at a changing situation over which he has no control causes him to see parallels between himself and Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the prince learns from his father’s ghost that he was murdered by his uncle Claudius and that his mother Gertrude rushed to wed his uncle.

But is the comparison exact? Are there also parallels between other characters and the people he knows? And what will happen when his week in limbo comes to an end?

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#WitchWeek2019 Day 4: Baked in a pie

Fig 1. Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, John Singer Sargent, 1889 (National Portrait Gallery)

Today’s Witch Week guest post is by Sari Nichols, who tweets as Armchair Scholar and blogs at The View from Sari’s World and at The Groundling’s Guide to Shakespeare. Her expertise suggested her as an ideal guide to Shakspearean villains.

As Kipling wrote, “The female of the species is deadlier than the male,” and that may well prove to be the case in the Bard’s work as Sari explores some especially wicked wives, dastardly daughters, and murderous mothers.


My official introduction to Shakespeare happened during a high school English class reading. Our teacher must have been a frustrated actor because he didn’t just read the play, he entertained us students with a one-man production of Macbeth!

While I found his antics highly engaging, the play didn’t resonate with me; at 17 I could not connect with a murderous medieval king. It was not until our teacher began to talk about the madness and death of Lady Macbeth that I began to see value in the play (Act V).

Lady Macbeth: Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?

Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.

The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?—
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?—No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
this starting.

The queen cannot cope with her role in the death of King Duncan and the aftermath of this vile act. She sleepwalks, looking at her hands, sometimes attempting to wash them, all the while wondering if she will ever be the same; we learn the answer a few lines later, Lady Macbeth has killed herself.

The thought of doing something so damning as to stain one’s soul petrified me. I vowed right there and then that I would never do something that I would regret to the point that I would have to ask if my hands ne’er be clean. This bargain I made with myself led me to study and appreciate Shakespeare. It would make sense, as it was one of his plays that helped shape teen Sari into young adult Sari.

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Skimble-skamble stuff

Wyvern rampant: a red wyvern is attributed to Owain Glyndŵr as the crest to his coat of arms

Today celebrates Owen Glendower, or rather Owain Glyndŵr in Welsh. September 16 marks the anniversary of when, in 1400, he was proclaimed Prince of Wales in Ruthin, in opposition to the English crown’s domination of the principality. After fifteen years of warfare he disappeared to history, the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales.

Paula Bardell-Hedley’s blog Book Jotter was the stimulus for this post with her reminder of Owain Glyndŵr Day here. Just now I want to give a little bit of background, some of which may be, as Shakespeare put it, skimble-skamble stuff.

The device adopted by Owain Glyndŵr for his banner and shield

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Ugly duckling to swan

“Shakespeare Droeshout 1623” by Martin Droeshout Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons http://shakespeare.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/files/2012/06/portrait-96-square.jpg

James Shapiro Contested Will:
Who Wrote Shakespeare? Faber and Faber 2010

Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James! — Ben Jonson

When I was nowt but a lad I read Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shakespeare (1910) in the school library, which is when I first came across the notion that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. According to Sir Edwin the plays are full of cryptic clues asserting that Francis Bacon used Will as a mask for writing all those plays. Typical is the nonsense word in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” which Durning-Lawrence claimed was an anagram in Latin for hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi (“these plays F Bacon’s offspring preserved for the world”). For an impressionable young mind there was much to mull over, but I wasn’t gullible enough to be convinced, and especially not by that coded ‘message’ — how many other phrases or sentences, in Latin or otherwise, can be concocted from that word?

Yet the fancy that Shakespeare was too much of a country bumpkin to be capable of writing such gems was one I was to come across again and again, with a bewildering array of candidates paraded for acceptance. Where was the comprehensive and informed rebuttal which would take all the claims seriously while marshalling killer counter-arguments?

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Multi-layered page-turner

Brian Aldiss, Helliconia:
Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter

Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010

The Helliconian trilogy is a multi-layered composition, as long and as rich as The Lord of the Rings, as colourful as a medieval tapestry and as polemical as an eco-warrior’s handbook. Aldiss is a prolific author in various genres, not just in science fiction; but SF at its best can itself include a great many genres, and this trilogy therefore has aspects of romance, epic, fantasy, prose poetry and science writing all flourishing in symbiosis with each other. And, like any great narrative, it is not only a great page-turner but has you caring about its characters. Continue reading “Multi-layered page-turner”

When the hurlyburly’s done

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont
1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Ray Bradbury Something Wicked This Way Comes
Gollancz 2008 (1962)

This is a haunting novel, a haunting not necessarily due to ghosts but to images and ideas lingering in the mind’s eye long after the last page is shut. The title (taken from words spoken by the Second Witch in Macbeth) sets the tenor of the story, as much a novel of magic realism as it is a tale of terror. The horror is compounded by being set in an ordinary and very provincial early 1930s town in Illinois where, one is supposed to assume, nothing much happens. Continue reading “When the hurlyburly’s done”

“Very great and most tragic”

Kullervo, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)
Kullervo, statue by C E Sjöstrand, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)

J R R Tolkien The Story of Kullervo
Edited by Verlyn Flieger
HarperCollins 2015 (2010)

Tolkien’s reputation rests on two parallel streams of his work. First, and the more renowned of the two, is his creative work, his fiction, much of it founded on his secondary world of Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and so on. The second stream is what was his day job, so to speak, his work as a scholar, the academic who specialised in languages and literatures and was well regarded by his peers and students.

Less well known, except to a host of die-cast fans and Tolkien scholars, is his work in which those two streams — the creative and the academic — co-mingle. His fascination with mythologies and folktales and legends led him to recast disparate ancient materials into what he must have hoped were coherent wholes, though none of it was published in his lifetime. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) was his reconfiguring of the Northern myths that were to famously inspire Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings, while The Fall of Arthur (2013) dealt with the Matter of Britain, tidying up plot inconsistencies through his own verses inspired by Old English alliterative verse. The latest Tolkien re-envisioning (ironically one of the first he attempted) is The Story of Kullervo, which first appeared in Tolkien Studies VII in 2010, and then in an expanded form by HarperCollins in 2015.

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Chameleon

http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-chameleon-images/
http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-chameleon-images/

Dear Reader, you will not be surpriz’d to observe that in recent days a steady consumption of Regency period and related writing may be persuading me to pursue certain patterns of speech in my writings. Having recently completed First Impressions, Charlie Lovett’s Austen-inspired cozy mystery, while simultaneously reading a selection of Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra, I find that it is difficult not to chuse similar turns of phrase and even spellings.

I have also finished Black Hearts in Battersea, the second of Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite books, set in the 1830s in what might have been a pre-Victorian world … if Queen Victoria had in reality come to the throne. You will doubtless recall that Aiken was much enamoured of Miss Jane’s novels, even to the extent of penning some continuations. And now I am deep into Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a work which deliberately echoes — without straying into parody or pastiche — the writing of that late Georgian era.

But then, I cannot but observe that I myself have leanings towards overblown phrases, for I rarely eschew the liberal usage of the comma, colon, semi-colon and dash. The reason must be an obsession with qualifying every statement, so as to excise ambiguity and evade accusations of generalisation. Where are the instances when I heed the injunction “Write as you speak”? When will I cleave to the modern style of writing plainly? Can I ever cast off the clout of anachronistic circumlocutions? Will I further descend into the slough of circuitousness, the whirlpool of wordiness, the maelstrom of mellifluence?

I digress.

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The most beautiful play

Giovanni Strazza's Veiled Virgin is located in the Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John's, NL.
The Veiled Virgin by Giovanni Strazza, Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

A D Nuttall Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale
Studies in English Literature No 26
Edward Arnold 1979 (1966)

I studied The Winter’s Tale at school, and while I didn’t then really appreciate it fully it continued to linger for several decades in my subconscious. I’m not entirely sure why: it may be the hint of Sleeping Beauty in the ‘revival’ of a dead Hermione; it may be memories of the famous stage direction Exit pursued by a Bear that stuck in the brainbox, or the notorious ascription of a coastline to landlocked Bohemia that struck me. Whatever it was, this was a play that I felt I ‘ought’ to read again, though I never seemed to get round to it. I even acquired a secondhand copy of Nuttall’s study of The Winter’s Tale though it only ever served as a talisman — I never even got round to reading that either.

Shakespeare’s impending quatercentenary finally provided the spur I needed for both. Nuttall’s commentary is split into four sections, an introduction followed first by the scenes set in Sicilia (with jealousy and guilt as the main themes), then those set mostly in Bohemia (‘varieties of innocence’ is the note struck here) and finally a conclusion. He begins with a ringing endorsement of the play:

The Winter’s Tale is the most beautiful play Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a less intelligent play than Hamlet (but not much less intelligent). It is less profound than King Lear (but not much less). It is not (as some readers will have begun to conclude) a pretty play, of ‘merely aesthetic’ appeal. For it is far less elegant than Love’s Labour’s Lost and much more disturbing than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The beauty of The Winter’s Tale does not so much charm the eye as pierce the viscera. It does not divert the spectator; it turns him inside out.”

And so on and so forth, in glorious hyperbole as suited the style of esteemed academics of yesteryear. But is what he asserts true? Continue reading “The most beautiful play”

Soul of the age

Chandos portrait
Chandos portrait

… Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! …
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
— Ben Jonson To the Memory of My Beloved
the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare

This valedictory poem by fellow playwright Ben Jonson summons up a contemporary estimation of the worth of William Shakespeare, whose death-day (and possibly birthday too) is annually celebrated — if that’s the right word — on April 23rd, St George’s Day. There can’t be many lovers of literature who aren’t aware that 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his departure from this world, leaving it a richer place for what he left to us.

I’ve discussed the man and works a few times in these pages, and now may be a fitting time to draw your attention to the occasionally dark but sometimes floodlit corners that I’ve explored over the years, with links to the posts that deal with these matters.

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Playing the innocent

  • Repost of a review first published in April 2014, and now dusted off as we approach the fourth centenary of his death on 23rd April 1616

Scholars suggest that Cymbeline was composed by Shakespeare and an unnamed colleague between 1609 and 1610, and first performed in 1611 — though not appearing in print for a dozen years until the First Folio. I have no competency to discuss which passages are by him and which by his collaborator, so I’ll treat the whole text as though by a single author, whom I shall call … “the Author”. In this final post about the play — marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism on April 26th 1564 — I would like to draw out some of the strands that make up the fabric of the play before discussing its merits as drama.
Continue reading “Playing the innocent”

Mortal Coil Shuffled Off

Bard strip

Director: Action!
Great Actor: “To be or to not be –“
Director: Cut!

Director: Action!
Great Actor:To be or to be not –“
Director: Cut!

Mumbles off-camera.

Great Actor: OK …
Director: A-n-d action!
Great Actor:To be or not … to be:”

Muffled cheers off camera.

Great Actor:that is … the answer –“

Muffled swearing off-camera.

William Shakespeare died April 23rd 1616, having retired a couple of years earlier from the stage and from playwriting. Reportedly this scrap of manuscript was recently discovered concealed behind his monument in Stratford’s parish church.